Drought has Cambria, and the entire state, in its grip. The Cambria Community Services District board has decided to make it the entry to a permanent desalination project. Water issues are dividing our town, and the Emergency Water Project is making it worse. The desalination plant that is under construction violates many state and federal laws and is unlikely ever to produce any water, or even be completed. We are all on the hook for $13 million to pay for it, though.
The desalination project was originally estimated to cost $1 million, but that rose to $4 million to $5 million for the piping and permits that would be needed for the portable units. By the time the CSD applied to the county for an emergency permit, it had grown to a permanent desalination plant estimated to cost $8.8 million (with interest, more than $13 million).
Cambria has about 6,000 residents, many of whom are economically disadvantaged or retired and living on fixed incomes. Paying these increases — this is only the first of more to come — will strain these residents financially.
The county granted the emergency permit May 15. Review by the relevant agencies — the state Coastal Commission, the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the NOAA/National Marine Fisheries Service, the Regional Water Quality Control Board — all filed critical comments detailing the many laws and regulations this project violates. The chemicals that will be used to run the permanent plant are dangerous and toxic to humans and wildlife. This toxic soup will be settling in a pond next to the State Parks campground.
The sleight of hand that changed the project, away from public meetings, deprived Cambrians of the opportunity to find out what the board was doing, as acknowledged by directors Gail Robinette and Muril Clift in their Aug. 14 Viewpoint.
In advertising, that is called bait and switch. It is dishonorable in retail and reprehensible in public life. Corporations can be fined and their leaders disgraced for it. Beyond the cost misrepresentation, CDM Smith, the contractor planning and building the plant, originally claimed that it would produce water by July 1. Now, the official estimate is the end of November. It’s unlikely that the project will be ready by that date, either. In a project of this complexity, cost increases and technical miscalculations are common. Expect delays. To manage the anticipated problems, the CSD board specifically conveyed permission to the general manager to make further changes without informing the public.
To evaporate the chemical-laced brine the plant will produce, an evaporation pond will hold the effluent. It won’t be big enough to evaporate the liquid fast enough, so four sprayers will blast it into the air, 12 hours a day, every day. This will be occurring in a sensitive environmental area, right next to a campground. The chemicals that will be mixed with the water in the “brine pond” are corrosive and toxic.
Storing chemical-laced brine within 100 feet of creeks containing endangered species is risky. This aspect needs to be evaluated before any permit is issued. These toxic chemicals endanger the water supply and the people who drink it, as well as the protected species that live in the area: western pond turtles, tidewater gobies, steelheads, snowy plovers, falcons, monarch butterflies, two-striped garter snakes and red-legged frogs. By protecting these species, we protect ourselves.
Disposing of toxic brine waste into the ocean via an outfall is not acceptable, either. This coastline is protected as a National Marine Sanctuary, among other restrictions. Pouring chemical effluent into it is against the law, for good reason. Because of the toxic chemicals, the health agencies require a tracer test to follow the water through the ground and see where it ends up. That test alone will use 134 acre-feet of scarce water, a three-month supply for Cambria.
Desalination is not the solution to Cambria’s water shortage. Other solutions, including updated infrastructure, storage, gray-water systems and tertiary water treatment are all more suitable. They involve less-complicated, less-expensive and less-energy-intensive technology. California’s desalination guidelines require that all other methods of water conservation and use be employed before resorting to desalination. The CSD board has not pursued gray-water systems, tertiary water treatment or the infrastructure replacement that could save millions of gallons of water.
In addition to the initial capital expense of building desalination plants, the cost of operating them is very high. Operating and maintenance expenses have not yet been calculated, but the contractor advises hiring five certified operators to run it.
This issue should have been resolved years ago. This is Cambria’s opportunity to settle it with responsible water policies that bring the community together.
Pursuing this technology has divided the community, is unlikely to be permitted as designed and will stretch Cambria’s finances to the limit, and perhaps beyond.
Water’s not worth the price of this project.